WASHINGTON, March 11, 2009 (AFP) - President Barack Obama Wednesday declared war on lawmakers who stuff bills with expensive pet projects, despite defying Republican veto demands by signing a measure packed with thousands of them.
Obama pressed home his campaign against 'earmarks' as part of a quest to trim the US federal budget and cut a booming one-trillion-dollar-plus deficit in half by the end of his current mandate in 2013.
Critics said Obama's comments were an attempt to find political cover after he signed into law a delayed 410-billion-dollar bill, to fund the government until October, behind closed doors.
The bill includes 8,000 earmarks the White House says were inserted before Obama took power in January. Prominent Republicans complained that Obama should have demanded the bloated spending be stripped out of the measure before it became law.
'I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government and we have a lot more work to do,' Obama said, explaining why he signed the mammoth bill.
'We can't have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery - but I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change.'
The bill, a huge composite of nine other spending bills, includes provisions easing travel and cash remittances to US foe Cuba - which Obama has supported - and funding for food security, energy, and other priorities.
The legislation's mostly Republican foes accused the president of breaking a campaign promise by failing to veto what they see as a bloated bill, larded with pet projects rather than genuine recession-fighting measures.
"All the president had to do was say, 'I'm vetoing this bill, I'm sending it back to Congress, remove the earmarks ... and only send me a bill that has authorized projects on it,'" his 2008 election foe, Republican Senator John McCain said on Fox News.
'What the president is saying is, it's business as usual in Washington.' But Obama hit back, arguing some of those complaining were guilty of the worst sins.
'I also find it ironic that some of those who rail most loudly against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own and will tout them in their own states and their own districts,' he said.
Obama vowed that going forward, his administration would impose strict measures aimed at 'reining in waste, abuse and inefficiency - saving American taxpayers up to 40 billion dollars each year in the process.'
He unveiled new ground rules about how and when lawmakers and introduce such proposed projects in the future, and praised moves in the House of Representative to craft similar guidelines.
'Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose,' he said.
'Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves,' he said.
'Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer,' the US leader said.
Obama also vowed to reform the sometimes 'corrupting' practice of awarding earmarks benefiting private companies, declaring that 'an earmark must never be traded for favors.'
Obama added: 'There are times where earmarks may be good on their own, but in the context of a tight budget, they might not be our highest priority.' Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives meanwhile issued thei
r own directives to crack down on earmark abuse.
In future, members will have to submit a request for funding for a pet project to a relevant government department for a 20-day review.
All earmarks which would fund a business or profit making entity must be shown to be awarded through a competitive bidding process.
'This amended and reformed process will provide the most open and transparent process for any legislative action in the history of the Congress,' said senior Democratic lawmaker David Obey.
'It will be far more open and transparent than during the 'good old days' when a committee chairman would simply pick up the phone and instruct government agencies to fund member requests behind the scenes with no transparency, no fingerprints, and no public accountability.'